11 September 2023
Martin Dewhirst reviews Pered listom katastrofy [In the Face of Catastrophe], ed. Nikolai Plotnikov, LIT Verlag, Münster, 2023, from €24,90, ISBN 978-3-643-15317-3.
This is the latest in an unregulated and very irregular series of collections of articles by independently-minded Russian thinkers (far from all of them philosophers by profession), profoundly concerned by what they sense(d) were/are terrible disasters lying ahead for their country. Grossly oversimplifying, one might claim that the failings of the Russian Orthodox Church, both 120 years ago and today, for a time personified by the self-styled ‘monk’ Rasputin, led to innumerable Russians thinking that it might be worth giving a chance to the atheist Bolsheviks, who promised their own miracles of materialist progress in the nearest future. This led directly to the first Great Terror, the massively destructive Russian Civil War.
What is widely regarded as the first such volume, Problems of Idealism, came out in 1902, followed by Freedom of Conscience in 1906 and Vekhi (Landmarks or Milestones), in 1909. The greatest tragedy occurred in late 1917 and early 1918, and inspired the collection Iz glubiny (De Profundis, Out of the Depths) in 1918 and TSarstvo Antikhrista (The Rule of the Antichrist) in 1922. (Perhaps for some people what happened in February 2022 was a sort of mystical ‘for whom the bell tolls’ moment: the start of a war that it’s forbidden in Russia to call a war?). Only a very few ‘real’ philosophers remained and survived in Russia after 1922, and Russian philosophy developed more creatively in the emigration. It wasn’t until 1974 and 1976 that two collections of non-materialist philosophical articles written mainly in Russia were published in Russian in the West – Iz-pod glyb (From Under the Rubble) and Samosoznaniye (perhaps Self-awareness or Self-consciousness). The Soviet censorship system made it very difficult for anything that was even implicitly ‘idealist’ to be published, as demonstrated most clearly in the late 1950s by the attacks on Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.
Censorship and self-censorship have been well and truly back in Russia since Putin came to power in Russia in 2000, and I rather doubt whether any of the 14 articles in the book under review here could be published there today. They are all related in one way or another to the indisputably illegal invasion and reinvasion by Russia of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. We know what happened, but why did it happen? There is no space here for me to attempt to summarise each chapter – a pity, because the only weakness in this collection are the appalling ‘English’ summaries of the chapters and, less important, the notes on the contributors. Perhaps the editor and the publisher wanted to be able to say that no Westerner had been involved in the preparation of the final text? However, the best result of this absurd decision would be a full English translation of the contents of this splendid book, and I hope this comes about.
Whenever I read books like this, I always look for which of the two Russian words for truth is used more frequently, istina or pravda. I’m glad to be able to say that the former pops up in one form or another almost 20 times. This is not the place to examine the differences between the two concepts, but it did occur to me while reading this book that I have frequently come across the word postpravda but never seen or heard postistina, which Russian friends tell me is an impossibility. Much more worrying for me is the frequent (almost 30 times) use in this book of the words postsovetsky and occasional use of poslesovetsky, as though Russia(ns) stopped being Soviet almost immediately after 1991, an impossibility. I think it’s quite widely accepted that it took Germans as a whole almost 30 years to become genuinely ‘post-Nazi’, and Nazi rule had lasted a mere 12 years. Surely it will take Russians as a whole much longer to move from the neosovetsky period into the postsovetsky stage of development? I would even claim that there have recently been increasing signs of neostalinism. On my definition, Russia now is more Soviet than it was in 1989 to 1991! President Putin is even more ‘Soviet’ than Yel’tsin was, and Yel’tsin was far more ‘Soviet’ than Gorbachev. Yes, Russia is ‘post-socialist’, but that doesn’t mean it is also ‘post-Soviet’. Have the contributors not read Aleksandr Zinoviev?! Anyway, a big ‘thank you’ to Aleksandr Dmitriev for ‘neo-sovetsky’ on p. 85 and to Aleksandr Bikbov for ‘vsyo-eshche-sovetsky’ on page 61!
I would claim that it took Ukraine until about 2005 to move from the neo-Soviet stage of development into its post-Soviet period, which has continued ever since. This is why Putin felt he had no alternative but to re-invade Ukraine last year in a desperate attempt to prevent the danger of becoming Russia’s greatest failure ever – the ruler who ‘lost’ Ukraine and with it any hope for the future imperial glory of his country. Why his nearest colleagues didn’t overrule him back then is something they may already regret, bearing in mind his dreadful mental and physical degeneration. There is a ‘Russian’ word fal’start (a false start), but we now need another new Russian word, fal’shkonets, to denote a false ending.
The editor of this invaluable collection of articles divides the contributions into three parts: the ethical catastrophe, the social (and sociological) catastrophe, and the anthropological catastrophe. Among the many subjects and problems raised here, and the thoughts and questions that occurred to me as a result, include the feeling that many Russians are experiencing of both resentment and ressentiment, but is there not a probable danger of accusing (almost) all Russians of ‘collective guilt’? Should they feel ashamed of being human beings rather than of being Russians? How can it be that the Russian leader is apparently devoid of even the slightest feelings of repentance (pokayaniye)? How responsible and guilty should many non-Russians feel for collaborating with Russians who were collaborating with Putin both before and even during the ongoing war? Should Putin be regarded as ‘merely’ a despot up to 2008 but as a tyrant since 2012? (This ties in with the discussion elsewhere about whether, and if so when, the regime in Russia moved from being ‘merely’ autocratic to totalitarian.) Is there a difference between guilt and responsibility? Can one talk about a ‘shame culture’ and a ‘blame culture’? Is it a sin for adults to say that they are ‘non-political’? Is it more patriotic for a Russian to be opposed to the current war than to support this war? Is there a Cold Civil War going on in Russia today? What is empressionism? Answer: a combination of empathy and aggression. Why wasn’t a total destalinisation carried out in the 1990s? Can/Should one compare the personality cult of Stalin with the personality cult of Putin? How does the combination of ‘the law and the citizen’ relate to the combination of ‘the leader and the people’? What is, or should be, the relationship between philosophy and ethics? Is the law obliged to defend freedom? What is the link between righteousness and rights? In Russia, is the State more important than the Empire? If not, should it be? Does перерождение (pererozhdenie) mean both ‘regeneration’ and ‘degeneration’? Are some new Dark Ages ahead of us? Is there not a good Russian word for ‘progress’? The penultimate line of this book reads: ‘Hard times lie ahead for the union of a tyrant and a sophist’. Make of that what you will!
It may take you some time to find a copy of this invaluable book and perhaps begin to assess the lack of responsibility of those who have kept on asserting that the Cold War ended in about 1989. The Cold War has been well and truly back since at least the start of this century and it led to the beginning of another Hot War nearly a decade ago. I suggest that you read both a reaction to this book by none other than Andrei Lugovoi, the person widely regarded as the killer of Aleksandr Litvinenko, at https://zona.media/news/2023/07/29/na-krayu and then a brilliant interview with the compiler of this volume, at https://echofm.online/statya-dnya/t-invariant-nikolaj-plotnikov-u-filosofii-v-rossii-nikogda-ne-bylo-instituczionalnogo-hrebta.